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Better rushing attack key to Syracuse upset at Clemson

Sean Meyers/Icon Sportswire

Not many are going to give Syracuse a shot at knocking off undefeated Clemson on the road this Saturday, but if recent results are any indication of how this game could unfold, the Tigers shouldn’t take the Orange too lightly.

Clemson has narrowly escaped each of the past two weeks. If not for a missed 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation, Clemson would have lost to NC State. Instead, the Tigers were victorious in overtime, then this past week, they knocked off Florida State by just a field goal.

Syracuse doesn’t have as formidable a roster as either of those two squads, but the Orange are feeling good about themselves, having recently knocked off ranked Virginia Tech and then rival Boston College on the road. The Orange were on a bye this week too, so they had extra time to rest and prepare for their biggest test of the season.

However, it doesn’t matter how much time Syracuse coach Dino Babers had to prepare for this upcoming matchup. Maybe he will work a couple new trick plays into the mix, but the game plan is simple: Syracuse must be able to run the ball in order to win.

That’s going to be a tough task, but Clemson is so good against the pass, Syracuse cannot afford to ask Eric Dungey to carry the load as he has most of the season.

A big part of that upset victory over Virginia Tech was Syracuse’s 156 rushing yards. That’s the second-most yards on the ground the Orange have recorded during a conference game this year. Their conference high in rushing yards should have an asterisk because the game was played in a hurricane and passing was virtually impossible.

The big rushing day versus the Hokies is definitely an outlier. Syracuse is second-to-last in rushing yards per game (129.63) and last in yards per rushing attempt (3.31) in the ACC this year. The Orange have mostly moved the ball by passing. Syracuse is first in passing yards per game (357.1) and eighth in passing yards per attempt (8.0) in the ACC.

If Syracuse counts on its passing attack this Saturday, it will play right into Clemson’s hands. The Tigers allow just 181.1 passing yards per game, which is the least in the ACC and 17th-fewest in the country.

Senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley will likely be responsible for covering Syracuse’s top weapon Amba Etta-Tawo. The graduate transfer had quiet games versus Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, but Etta-Tawo caught 10 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown against Boston College.

The Orange can’t expect that kind of production with the All-ACC corner matched up against him. Someone else will have to help in the receiving game, but Dontae Strickland and the running game is key. Strickland had his best game against South Florida, where he rushed for 127 yards on 30 attempts. He will need a similar outing Saturday for Syracuse to win.

Strickland making a big impact against Clemson appears to be unlikely. He’s averaged more than 4.3 yards per carry in only one game this season. As great it appeared the Orange ran the ball versus the Hokies, their 156 rushing yards are a little misleading. Dungey accumulated 106 of those rushing yards, and Strickland had just 69 yards on 16 attempts.

That’s not exactly the balance Syracuse needs in order to win this game. Clemson’s front seven’s game plan should be to take away Dungey, and if they can also shut down Etta-Tawo on the outside, then the Orange are going to have a lot of trouble moving the ball.

Hypothetically, if Syracuse can run the ball, they would help its defense, as it wouldn’t be on the field as long against DeShaun Watson. Don’t count on that happening, because the Orange run the up-tempo offense. If Syracuse plays up-tempo and doesn’t move the ball, Clemson will have the ball all game.

Milking the play clock a little bit more this week could help, but ultimately, the biggest assistance to the Syracuse cause would be Strickland having the biggest game of his career. If he plays well, he could loosen up the Clemson defense and provide Syracuse another offensive option besides its quarterback and top receiver.

It’s a long shot, but Strickland could be Babers’ key to another big upset.

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